The Catholic Church teaches that purgatory is a temporal state of purification that takes place after death for those who die in the state of grace and friendship with God, but who still have the vestiges of temporal effects due to sin, inordinate attachment to creatures, and whose will is not fully united with God’s will.
Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The Final Purification, or Purgatory (#1030-1032)
1030 All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.
1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. the tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire (1 Cor 3:15; 1 Pet 1:7):
As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come (Mt 12:31).
1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: "Therefore Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin." (2 Macc 12:46) From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:
Let us help and commemorate them. If Job's sons were purified by their father's sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.
This purification involves suffering (St. Paul uses the image of fire to emphasize this). Once this process of purification is complete, the soul enters into God’s presence in which the perfect bliss of beholding God face-to-face lasts forever.
Purgatory, Sheol, Hades
The Scriptures were written in Hebrew and Greek. “Purgatory” comes from the Latin word purgatorium. In Scripture, we do find references to an afterlife that is neither the hell of the damned nor heaven.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word sheol is used to describe this condition; in the New Testament, the Greek term is hades. Scripture teaches very clearly that hades is not hell; it is distinct from gehenna, or the lake of fire which is the hell of the damned.
The Book of Revelation describes how, at the end of time, death and hades are thrown into hell (gehenna). This is the second death, the lake of fire. Scripture teaches that once the purification of all souls has taken place, there is no more need for hades. This same concept of sheol (in Hebrew), hades (in Greek), and purgatorium (in Latin) is purgatory as we have come to know it today (cf. Catechism, #1030-32).
Purgatory undermines the work of Christ?
The major objection to purgatory is that somehow it seems to undermine the work of Christ. Is Christ’s death sufficient? Of course it is! It is sufficient to win our redemption and to allow the Holy Spirit to sanctify us. The work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, however, is the work of purification and sanctification. It is the application of the divine life won by Christ.
Purgatory in no way should be viewed as a “second chance,” by which those who did not believe in and follow Christ can somehow “suffer their way into heaven,” despite their rejection of the Christian life. Jesus is clear that those who refuse to follow Him are guilty:
“He who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (Jn. 3:18). Spiritual purification is possible only for those who have been reconciled to God in this life (cf. 2 Cor. 5:18-20).
Purification after death in the Old Testament
The concept of purification after death dates back to the Jews of pre-Christian times. Evidence of this can be seen in the Second Book of Maccabees. We must remember that Protestants do not accept 2 Maccabees as scriptural. Nevertheless, objective readers will have to note that, even if the seven books of the Old Testament accepted by Catholics and rejected by Protestants are not biblical, they are godly writings and worthy of our consideration.
In 2 Maccabees, following a battle, the faithful Jews found out that their fallen comrades each carried with them sacred tokens of idols, which the law forbade the Jews to wear:
“They turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering” (2 Mac. 12:42-43).
The sacred text notes that this was an honorable deed, and the passage closes with the statement, “Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Mac. 12:45).
Called to be holy as God is Holy
Sacred Scripture and Tradition affirm that God’s ultimate intention is for us to become perfect, as He is perfect, to become like Him so that we can know, love, and enjoy Him fully in heaven forever (see Matthew 5:48, Hebrews 12:14; 1 John 3:2–3). In fact, heaven simply wouldn’t be heaven unless those who lived there had been perfected. If we were to bring along with us all the sins and weaknesses we have in this life, we would be just as miserable in heaven as we are on earth — for all eternity!
Matthew 5:48: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect”.
1 Pe 1:15-16: “...as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, ‘Be holy because I am holy’.”
Hebrews 12:14: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for that holiness without which no one will see the Lord”.
Revelation 21:27: “...but nothing unclean will enter it (heaven), nor anyone who does abominable things or tells lies.”
1 Pedro 3:18-20: “For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the spirit. In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient to while God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water.”
1 Pedro 4:6: “For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead that, though condemned in the flesh in human estimation, they might live in the spirit in the estimation of God”.
Sins forgiven in the age to come
In Matthew’s Gospel there is a tremendous confrontation between Christ and the Pharisees, in which they accuse Him of exercising authority over demons by the power of Beelzebul, the “prince of demons” (Mt. 12:24). Jesus then warns them of the sin against the Holy Spirit and states:
“Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come (Mt. 12:31-32).
If this sin cannot be forgiven either in this age or in the age to come, some sins might be able to be forgiven in the age to come. Without using the word “purgatory,” Jesus is presenting teachings that seemed in harmony with the Catholic teaching on purgatory and were a bit difficult to interpret from an Evangelical perspective.
This “forgiveness of sins” and “the age to come,” the reference to a prison in which we would not be released until we had “paid the last cent” — this is certainly not heaven or hell. We never get out of hell, and heaven is no prison.
Delivered to the jailers... until he should pay all his debt
As Christ teaches about the importance of forgiveness, He gives the example of a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. He brought in a man who owed a great deal of money and forgave him the debt. The forgiven man in turn went out and met one of his fellow slaves, who owed him but a fraction of the amount, and demanded repayment. The just king summoned his slave back and said,
“You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt (Mt. 18:32-34).
What was Jesus talking about? Scripture clearly teaches, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). And yet Our Lord Himself gives the example of a man who had been forgiven, afterward acted unjustly, and finally was handed over to repay all that he owed.
God as a consuming fire
(1 Corinthians 3:1-5)
While addressing the very issue of sin within the Christian community — those who were believers and had accepted the Lordship of Jesus Christ into their lives — St. Paul writes:
For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble — each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Cor. 3:11-15).
The passage is quite clear: Gold and silver, when placed into a furnace, would be purified; wood and hay would be burned away. As this is done, Scripture says we will suffer loss, but be saved “as through fire.” What else could St. Paul be referring to than purgatory? He can’t be referring to hell, because it’s clear that the people who undergo this “purifying fire” will be saved, while those who are in hell are lost forever. And yet he can’t be referring to heaven, because he mentions the suffering of loss, while in heaven every tear will be wiped away (cf. Rev. 21:4).
Scripture teaches that God is a “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). The point St. Paul seems to make is that, as God draws us to Himself after death, there is a process of purification in the fire of God’s holy presence. God Himself purifies us of those imperfect deeds: the wood, hay, and stubble. And those works that are performed in faithfulness and obedience to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, those of gold and silver, are purified. This purification is necessary because, as Scripture teaches of heaven — the new Jerusalem — and the temple within it, “Nothing unclean shall enter it” (Rev. 21:27). The biblical images of the purifying fire, through which the believer is saved while suffering loss, sound more and more like purgatory.
What is clear and undeniable is the solidarity the early Christians felt with the deceased. Many ancient Christian monuments call out for prayer. For example, the epitaph of a bishop named Abercius, composed toward the end of the second century, provides:
“Standing by, I, Abercius, ordered this to be inscribed; truly, I was in my seventy-second year. May everyone who is in accord with this and who understands it pray for Abercius.”
This practice of prayer for the deceased predates a fully developed defense of this practice, which was provided at the ecumenical councils of Lyons II (1274), Florence (1439-45), and Trent (1545-63).
Tertullian, 211: “We offer sacrifices for the dead on their birthday anniversaries” (The Crown 3:3).
Tertullian, 216: “A woman, after the death of her husband... prays for his soul and asks that he may, while waiting, find rest; and that he may share in the first resurrection. And each year, on the anniversary of his death, she offers the sacrifice” (On Monogamy 10:1-2).
— Since the early Fathers:
The image of the purifying fire (cf. 1 Cor. 3:15) is rooted in the apostolic Tradition. The historic evidence clearly pointed to a belief in a state of purification that would later be called “purgatory.” This term corresponded to the Hebrew concept of sheol, and to the Greek term hades in the New Testament. This third and temporary state of purification is biblical, apostolic, historical and, most of all, true and completely reconcilable with the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Gospels.
The doctrine of purgatory is completely reconcilable with a loving God who is a consuming fire. As we are drawn up into His love, into His very divine life — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — we begin to burn with that same divine fire, and those impurities to which we have clung in this life must be burned away. This will inevitably involve suffering, as we let go of those imperfect things to which we are attached.
The hidden mystery behind the teaching of purgatory is our calling to live in God for all eternity, which requires us to give perfectly of ourselves (cf. Mt. 5:48). Even with deep faith, the Christian life is difficult. We are called to manifest heroic generosity, and yet generosity hurts in this life. No matter what we’re asked to give, we seem to run out — of time, of energy, of money. God calls us to acknowledge this weakness, this poverty, and to turn to Him and cry out for help that He might fill us with His grace.
In heaven, generosity will not hurt; the lack of generosity will hurt. That is because in heaven God will give Himself to us fully and completely, holding nothing back. Our ability to receive from Him will be completely contingent upon our ability, in turn, to immediately give back. Otherwise, the gift of God would destroy us. Like strapping a water balloon onto a fire hydrant nozzle, we would explode! It is only when we learn the habit of complete and total self-giving that we will be able to experience the joy of heaven.
Christians are called to accept the finished work of Jesus Christ, and to allow that work to be applied to our lives by the work of the Holy Spirit, so that those who are justified will be sanctified. For us it is impossible. But with God, all things are possible.